Five Quotes to Remember When Defending Food Not Bombs’ Right to Feed Unhoused People in De Anza Park

  1. The quote that inspired the latest debate about whether or not unhoused people in Tucson deserve to be treated with respect and dignity was embedded in a tweet from the Tucson Police on their Park Safety account on February 7. TPD posted an announcement about Tucson City Code 21-4, asserting that it’s a crime to “distribute food to any individual within a City Park without a permit,” and they followed this up with pictures of discarded food wrappers and beverage containers collected in De Anza. The announcement included the following: “The distribution of food also generates an increase in our homeless population. These individuals will continue to stay in these parks and return due to the repeated distribution.” As Edward Celaya noted in the Arizona Daily Star, this amounts to “borrowing logic from wildlife conservation and applying it to human beings,” and a number of local activists were outraged.
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  3. Among those who spoke out about the TPD announcement and the City Code it described were members of Peoples Defense Initiative, known for their 2019 fight to make Tucson a Sanctuary City. In a letter signed by more than 400 individuals representing over 25 groups, which was read by Dr. Goli Bagheri at the City Council Meeting on February 19, PDI eloquently made the point that food is a human right and feeding the hungry is never a crime. They emphasized that the desire to remove unhoused people from public parks is linked with “…economic initiatives that have gifted developers with hurtful and unnecessary tax incentives, gentrified swaths of our city, and replaced historic neighborhoods with a surplus of student housing and luxury highrises. Gentrification and mass displacement of families in Tucson is an existential threat for many, with dozens of families being evicted on a daily basis without any form of representation. Whether enforced or not, the existence of this ordinance criminalizes humanitarian aid in our own neighborhoods.
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  5. According to Celaya, Mayor Romero’s office issued a statement on February 13 indicating that “no individual will be fined or otherwise penalized for carrying out the humanitarian act of feeding a person,” but in response to this statement PDI co-founder Zaira Haynes-Livier said she thought the ordinance was part of a national effort to criminalize the poor and added, “If this is a code that isn’t going to be enforced, if you believe that it’s wrong, then you need to rescind it, you need to repeal it.Georgette Rhoads expressed a similar sentiment during the Call to the Audience at the City Council meeting on February 19: “You cannot place lawful restrictions on the charitable heart. I will continue to follow a higher directive to reinforce the inherent dignity and worth of each and every human being regardless of circumstances. Criminalizing humanitarian aid should be rescinded immediately.”
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    Food Not Bombs table outside the February 19 City Council meeting; photo by G.S. Evans
  7. In a follow-up tweet to that contentious February 7 statement, TPD listed a variety of resources for Tucson’s unhoused population and emphasized the need for services, but they also emphasized the trash that had been gathered in De Anza Park, the place where Food Not Bombs Tucson provides cooked food and groceries every Sunday evening. According to an interview with Se from Food Not Bombs Tucson, the announcement on the Park Safety account came the day after the police swept unhoused people from DeAnza Park in order to do some landscaping because the park seems to be scheduled for redevelopment as part of the larger process of gentrification here in Tucson. As Se spoke in Presidio Park just outside Council Chambers on February 19, members of Food Not Bombs gave out plates of food. The group, founded in 1980, collects food that would otherwise go to waste and makes community meals, served free to anyone who is hungry. Food Not Bombs noted in a February 19 Facebook post: “Perhaps the City of Tucson should rethink how we use our resources. Perhaps if we really committed ourselves to neighborly compassion, there wouldn’t be any hungry people sleeping in parks, and we could all share the experience of safety and security.”
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  9. It’s important to note that there’s a legal as well as an ethical dimension to this issue, which begs the question of whether the City of Tucson is on solid legal ground in requiring that groups like Food Not Bombs get a permit before they feed the hungry. Long-time advocates for unhoused people Jon McLane and John Cooper were at the February 19 event; in an email Cooper sent to the city, he stated that Tucson City Code 21-4 is illegal because both city and county permits are required, and these separate requirements are inherently contradictory. He further argued that this violates both the Arizona Constitution and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. And in fact the 11thS. Circuit Court of Appeals has already ruled on a similar case involving Food Not Bombs feeding homeless people in a park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In the Florida case the judge ruled that feeding the homeless is “expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment.” The decision was made in response to a local chapter of Food Not Bombs, which sued Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for requiring a permit to share food in public parks. Kirsten Anderson, litigation director at the Southern Legal Counsel and lead attorney on the case said, “The court’s opinion recognized sharing food with another human being is one of the oldest forms of human expressionWe think this decision strengthens our message to cities across the country that they need to invest in constructive solutions to homelessness instead of wasting government resources on punishing people who seek to offer aid.” Vice Mayor Paul Cunningham later announced on Twitter that he would support a motion “… to rescind the ordinance that makes feeding homeless illegal. The ordinance doesn’t make sense and is difficult to enforce. Too many unintended consequences.” One of which would be to criminalize compassion.

Photo of Dr. Goli Bagheri reading the letter from PDI at the City Council Meeting on February 19 from City of Tucson website.

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